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GEOGHEGAN: Smith guides Unionville back to district volleyball prominence

EAST MARLBOROUGH >> In September, when all high school sports remained shut down in this region due to the pandemic, and the Unionville gymnasium was off limits, volleyball coach Stephanie Smith and her players stepped outside for what could loosely be described as ‘beach volleyball.’

The site was not a beach, of course, but simply a net set up in the outfield of the junior varsity baseball field. Unionville toiled in the elements under decidedly less than ideal playing conditions, trying to improve for a season of great uncertainty.

Now fast-forward just two months later, and the squad celebrated the District 1 4A Championship on Thursday after sweeping previous unbeaten Council Rock North 3-0 in the final.

“Practicing on the baseball field just shows how much we love the game,” Smith said. “The players were devoted to this program and excited to compete in any way shape or form.”

Unionville Athletic Director, Pat Crater, certainly noticed.

“Steph was determined to support the kids in any way and in any conditions,” he said. “Even when we were shut down in September, she continued to show up with a positive attitude, and that’s paying off now. She’s been a rock for these girls.”

In just her third season at the helm, Smith has the program back to the preeminence of the 1980’s, when the Indians captured five district crowns between 1982-89. The latest title, however, is the school’s first in a quarter century.    

“This is the top,” Smith said, when asked to rank this latest accomplishment. “It’s been 25 years since we’ve done this.

“And now that we have this title, everything else is a bonus.”

Unionville is now 12-0, has a dominant 36-3 mark in sets, and heads to an abridged PIAA Tournament just three victories from a state title.

“This group is like a representation of Steph,” Crater pointed out. “When you walk into the gym for a practice, it is totally positive, they are having fun. And they all are so friendly.

“But when they step onto the court, they just start crushing the ball and playing hard. It is exactly what we want in our student-athletes, and a lot of that starts at the top with Steph.”

It was quite apparent on Thursday. Just after Smith put the district champion medals around the necks of her players, and just prior to the presentation of the District 1 trophy, senior captains Sophie Brenner and Ashlyn Wiswall sprinted to the microphone and say in unison: ‘Thanks coach.’

“It’s been a very special season,” Smith said. “I am very lucky to have such great seniors, and a bunch of athletes that are committed to the program. They are a joy to coach.”

So far in three seasons, Smith’s teams are a combined 48-13, which is a .786 winning percentage. All three teams have qualified for the postseason, and Unionville played in the last two district finals, falling in 2019 to Bishop Shanahan. That team went on to notch the program’s first triumph in the state tourney with a first round win versus Emmaus.

This fall Unionville dethroned longtime champion Shanahan to win the Ches-Mont regular season title, and then survived a five-set do-or-die rematch on Monday in the semifinals. They will take on District 12 champ Archbishop Carroll in the state quarters on Saturday.

Smith was an assistant coach for Clee Brun who ascended to the top when Clee retired prior to the 2018 season. Crater tabbed her for the head coaching job.

“Even in her role as an assistant you could tell she had a bright future as a head coach,” he said. “She loves these kids, she loves the sport and she is totally committed. Those are the things that make a successful coach.”

Short in stature, Smith is a dynamo motivator. She laughed hysterically when asked if she had to look up to talk to all of her players.

“The girls always joke that I need a (designated setter) on one side and a libero on the other whenever I’m talking to them,” she quipped.

“She is cool and calm, but I can attest that on the inside, she is a fierce competitor,” Crater said.

Her players, like junior middle hitters Genna Weeber and Emily Harper, see it every day.

“She knows how to lift us up when we are down. She is always encouraging us,” Weeber said.

“Coach Steph is the best,” added Harper. “She’s more than just a coach. She keeps our whole team together and we wouldn’t have been able to do this without her.

“She’s instilled a great attitude in all of us. She knows how to make us work hard but also have fun and enjoy playing together.”

And in addition to everything else, Smith had the added burden of having to guide this team in the midst of a global pandemic.

“In a challenging time, good leadership is critical,” Crater said.

“While there is no shortage of good players on our team, Steph has done an incredible job of building this program in such a short amount of time.”

 

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